Newsletter No. 20 December 2010

Another year is coming to a close – and already we are into the second decade of the 2000s. Amazing how quickly the last decade went!

Equally amazing is that we appear to be facing more and more change, day by day, and people seem to find it more and more difficult to cope. However, if you look back on your life and see how much change you’ve already experienced, you will realise that, in fact, you are actually very skilled at dealing with it. The problem is: it’s very easy to overlook the lessons learned and to be overwhelmed by the apparent flood of constant change.

Our current article, therefore, is around how we can better live with the ambiguity that surrounds us and manage the uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings that this brings up for us. We also introduce you to “Managing Uncertainty”, LASA’s latest innovative programme.

May we also wish you a lovely holiday season and a Happy New Year

In this issue:

Best wishes from the LASA Team


Latest thinking

Ambiguity and Managing Uncertainty

Our colleague Richard Hames of Asian Foresight Institute has identified three inextricably linked systems which operate today.  The Economic system includes science and technology, current demographic trends and the shift from the West to the East; the Environmental system includes competition for resources, social (and military) instability and the degradation of the environment; and the Energy system includes peak oil (whenever that will happen) and alternative energy sources.

These systems contribute to making our lives less and less predictable. Or, looking at it from a different perspective, perhaps we are less and less able to kid ourselves that we are in control.

At LASA we hold that there is so much ambiguity “out there” that we – all of us - simply don’t know what to do; we become uncertain about many aspects of life, which in turn results in greater fear of change, and the desire to cling to the known – but the known keeps changing, further undermining our confidence.

Yet in this maelstrom of ambiguity, we believe, is great potential and opportunity for us and our organisations.

Let’s first define our terms, so you are clear what we mean. We define ambiguity as the constantly changing world in which you live and operate. Uncertainty is how you feel about the ambiguity that you face. Uncertainty causes you to feel stressed and it is difficult to make good decisions when you are stressed. After all, in an environment of ambiguity, of constant change, you can’t do anything about what is coming your way; you can’t control the outside world; it is unlikely you can make major change - you don’t know which particular event will occur when.

What you can do something about is how you feel about this – you can learn to manage your own uncertainty. You can learn to exercise the thinking muscle and become used to thinking about different possible futures, rather than just one (your desired future) which will, very probably, never happen. If you do this, then you can start to think about what you might do in each potential future; how your organisation’s strategy will work in each potential future. This helps you to feel, if not more in control, at least more able to respond when unexpected events arise. It increases your confidence of being aware, of being in touch, of being able to adapt readily. In a sense, you will have done your homework (and contingency planning) in advance.

At LASA we recognise the paralysing effects of uncertainty, especially on leaders, and have recently devised a brand new, 2-day programme to address exactly this issue: “Managing Uncertainty.” The pilot was delivered to Bacardi/Martini in Geneva in November (see News, below). The programme includes the innovative Ambiguity Architect´┐Ż (developed by R.P. White and P. Hodgson) which measures how individuals respond to ambiguity and what enables and restrains them. By also covering global systemic challenges; the model of innovation and creativity in the Double Cone; hedgehogs and foxes; the cycle of renewal; and values as part of our DNA, the programme provides an outline framework for learning to manage uncertainty. It is for people who are mid- to senior level leaders who have to implement a strategy in today’s shifting environment.

In previous newsletters we have frequently discussed what it takes to be an effective leader. One of the major characteristics is the need to make decisions, even in the face of uncertainty – and the more ambiguous the times, the more such decisions require strong leadership. A good leader is able to admit to – and deal with – her uncertainty. And she will do her homework too – she will use Insight (one of the Five Qualities of Purposeful Self-Renewing Organisations) to think through what might be heading her way, and consider her options.

In a world of ambiguity and uncertainty, the purpose of thinking strategically about the future is not to predict what will happen but rather to consider a range of alternatives; to uncover the assumptions behind each of them, and to embrace uncertainty with confidence, in order to be ready to adapt to the changing world around us.

@LASA Insight Ltd, 2010

Latest Books

Relax, its only uncertainty: Lead the way when the way is changing

By Philip Hodgson and Randall White
FT/Prentice Hall (2001)

Phil and Randy define two types of ambiguity and uncertainty – Type 1 is a situation where you are uncertain but you can get the information from somewhere – you only need to find an expert. An example would be if you got lost and needed to ask directions. Type 2 is when you don’t know the answer, but neither does anybody else. And there may be many ‘right’ answers. The book takes you through their research on how leaders deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. They have identified eight Enablers – the skills and capabilities which help you to ‘embrace ambiguity and handle your own uncertainty’. They also identify eight ‘Restrainers’ which get in your way in handling ambiguity and uncertainty. These are often extremes of the Enablers.

The book provides a framework which you can then use to diagnose where you are strong and where you are weak; from this you can identify what you need to do to improve. For each Enabler or Restrainer they identify the signs (what you would be thinking), the behaviours (what you do) and the kinds of things you would say to exhibit this Enabler or Restrainer. There are case studies, followed by an explanation of how each links with other Enablers/Restrainers and finally suggestions for how to get better at an Enabler or mitigate/limit a Restrainer.

This is a practical book which is really helpful for working on improving your own skills at responding to ambiguity and reducing your own feelings of uncertainty.

Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results

By Bill Jensen and Josh Klein
Viking (2010)

Bill Jensen and Josh Klein have written a book about how to get things done in organisations that are not designed for the work we have to do today. How do you actually achieve anything when it seems like an organisation's processes work against you? You will find some answers here.

We know that things change very quickly these days yet that organisations change slowly. The definition of a 'hack' is to manage to do something positive, benevolent and good for the organisation while not (potentially) following ALL of the rules. I used to work for an organisation where we were encouraged to 'ask forgiveness, not permission'. This is what they are advocating and it is a joy to see this encouraged. The only way we will get our organisations to change is if WE change them. And often the only way we can feel positive about our working environment is when we find 'work arounds' that work.

Like Bill's earlier work (The Simplicity Handbook), this book is clear, and well written, simple enough, but not too simple. However, actually doing it (hacking work) is by no means easy - the authors encourage you to be quite clear about what your values are and how you work to them and uphold them while still achieving the needful for your day-to-day work.

This is a book that is written for the American market so there aren't many European examples in the many case studies the authors present. But the concept will still work here. Jensen and Klein have based the book on many interviews with people who are already 'hacking' work and these ought to be sufficient to give you ideas of what you can do in your situation.

Best of all, they connect with their readers via their Hacking Work website. What I like best about the book is that they help us to see how to get our power back, where it belongs, and take responsibility for using it wisely.

Joke corner


  • Law of Mechanical Repair - After your hands become coated with grease, your nose will begin to itch and you'll have to pee.
  • Law of Gravity - Any tool, nut, bolt, screw, when dropped, will roll to the least accessible corner.
  • Law of Probability -The probability of being watched is directly proportional to the stupidity of your act.
  • Law of Random Numbers - If you dial a wrong number, you never get a busy signal and someone always answers.
  • Law of the Alibi - If you tell the boss you were late for work because you had a flat tire, the very next morning you will have a flat tire.
  • Variation Law - If you change lines (or traffic lanes or lines in the grocery store), the one you were in will always move faster than the one you are in now (works every time).
  • Law of the Bath - When the body is fully immersed in water, the telephone rings.
  • Law of Close Encounters -The probability of meeting someone you know increases dramatically when you are with someone you don't want to be seen with.
  • Law of the Result - When you try to prove to someone that a machine won't work, it will.
  • Law of Biomechanics - The severity of the itch is inversely proportional to the reach.
  • Law of the Theatre and Hockey Arena - At any event, the people whose seats are furthest from the aisle, always arrive last. They are the ones who will leave their seats several times to go for food, or the toilet and who leave early before the end of the performance or the game is over. The folks in the aisle seats come early, never move once, have long gangly legs or big bellies, and stay to the bitter end of the performance. The aisle people also are very surly folk.
  • The Coffee Law - As soon as you sit down to a cup of hot coffee, your boss will ask you to do something which will last until the coffee is cold.
  • Murphy's Law of Lockers - If there are only two people in a locker room, they will have adjacent lockers.
  • Law of Physical Surfaces - The chances of an open-faced jelly sandwich landing face down on a floor, are directly correlated to the newness and cost of the carpet or rug.
  • Law of Logical Argument - Anything is possible if you don't know what you are talking about.
  • Brown's Law of Physical Appearance - If the clothes fit, they're ugly.
  • Oliver's Law of Public Speaking - A closed mouth gathers no feet.
  • Wilson's Law of Commercial Marketing Strategy - As soon as you find a product that you really like, they will stop making it.
  • Doctors' Law - If you don't feel well, make an appointment to go to the doctor, by the time you get there you'll feel better. But don't make an appointment, and you'll stay sick.

Flame azalea
© PMLustig 2010

Latest News from LASA

  • In September, together with Mark McKergow, Tricia ran a Masterclass at UWE for Senior Managers in the NHS on Appreciative Leadership. It was very encouraging to see so many senior NHS managers show real interest in a different approach to leadership in the biggest organisation in Europe.
  • At the end of September, together with SAMI colleagues and sponsored by the St. Andrews Management Institute, Tricia ran an Expected Surprises conference where participants looked at how to notice weak signals (Black Swans) and how that might affect their strategic planning. Professor Richard Hames, Professor Peter McKiernan and Dr. Randolph Kent were the speakers. It got rave reviews and can be run for any organisation that is interested on an in-company basis. There will be further conferences run in the New Year – we will let you know when they are.
  • In October, together with co-author Gill Ringland, Tricia ran two workshops based on the book, Beyond Crisis. One was for the Strategic Planning Society and the other was for Sayer-Vincent (who work with not-for-profit organisations.) Both audiences expressed great interest in constant renewal and different ways of thinking about the future, with many insightful questions in the Q&A sessions which followed.
  • In November Tricia ran a two day ‘Managing Uncertainty’ workshop through CIPD (where she is OD Faculty working in the areas of strategy, scenarios and futures) for Bacardi/Martini in Geneva. This pilot workshop helped a group of managers at Bacardi/Martini to clarify areas needing further improvement, as well as highlighting the potential of the programme for a much wider audience, where managing one’s own uncertainty is recognised as a prerequisite for effective leadership.
  • Tricia will be writing a chapter in the new book ‘Here Be Dragons’, a sequel to “Beyond Crisis”, along with co-author Gill Ringland and other SAMI colleagues.
  • The “LASA Insight Daily Newspaper” has just been launched. See “Links” below. We welcome your feedback; let us know if you find this new development useful, interesting – or not!


Ambiguity and Uncertainty

Uncertainty and mystery are energies of life. Don’t let them scare you unduly, for they keep boredom at bay and spark creativity ~ R. I Fitzhenry

Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty. ~ Jacob Bronowski

Without the element of uncertainty, the bringing off of even the greatest business triumph would be dull, routine, and eminently unsatisfying. ~ J.Paul Getty

To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous ~ Chinese proverb

Maturity of mind is the capacity to endure uncertainty. ~ John Finley

The creative person is willing to live with ambiguity. He doesn’t need problems solved immediately and can afford to wait for the right ideas. ~ Abe Tannenbaum

Take advantage of the ambiguity in the world. Look at something and think what else it might be ~ Roger van Oech

I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity. ~ Gilda Radner

LASA Website

If this interests you, there are other interesting resources on the LASA Insight website so why not take a look by going to

Comments and Feedback

If you have any comments or feedback on - or suggestions for - this newsletter then please email them to us  here

@Patricia Lustig 2010